Termites and Historic Preservation

Stop 4 of 4 in the Animals in the French Quarter tour

While termites have lived and thrived in the world for over two hundred million years, the truly destructive subterranean Formosan termites did not arrive in New Orleans until after World War II, probably on a ship traveling from Asia. Formosan termites have damaged millions of dollars' worth of property in New Orleans. Experts estimate that 20-25% of the trees in the city are infected with these insects. While Formosan termites live underground, they have also adapted to urban environments by nesting in trees, homes, and buildings. They burrow through trees and wooden construction materials alike, eating the wood from the inside out and causing structural damage.

While you are walking through the city, you may notice evenly-spaced green plastic or metal circles in front of certain properties, or small, gray, plastic plugs in the trunks of trees. These are termite bait traps. The termites eat the poisoned bait and then return to their nests to infect and kill their neighbors. It is estimated that the city of New Orleans spends over $100 million a year on termite control; and yet, many historic homes have been ravaged by these pests.

The French Quarter is the hardest hit of all New Orleans neighborhoods. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Agricultural instituted "Operation Full Stop" in order to reduce the Formosan termite's numbers while also reducing the amount of money the city and private citizens would have to spend to repair termite property damage. The Cabildo, which stands next to St. Louis Cathedral and was the location of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, was one of the first buildings to be treated by the termite bait unit system.

Images

Before Termite Infestation, Residence, Jackson Barracks

Before Termite Infestation, Residence, Jackson Barracks

There is nothing extraordinary about this photo of a column, but compare it to the next image depicting damage caused by termites eating away at the building. | Source: Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library. View File Details Page

After Termite Infestation, Residence, Jackson Barracks

After Termite Infestation, Residence, Jackson Barracks

Note how much of the column the termites have destroyed, perhaps in a single season. | Source: Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library. View File Details Page

Ships Returning Soldiers from the Pacific Theater May Have Brought Termites Too

Ships Returning Soldiers from the Pacific Theater May Have Brought Termites Too

Ships brought the rats that infested the city's wharves. They also may have brought the termites that threaten to destroy its historic buildings. Transporting soldiers home from the Pacific theater after World War II, these ships could have been carrying the Formosan termite, named after their island of origin, Formosa, which is currently called Taiwan. | Source: Image Courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture's Formosan Termite Image Library. View File Details Page

LSU Entomologist Gregg Henderson Checks Termite Bait Units

LSU Entomologist Gregg Henderson Checks Termite Bait Units

Termite bait units are installed to lie flush with the city streets. Here is a view of an entire unit as a scientist checks for signs of termite infestation. | Source: Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library. View File Details Page

French Quarter Termite Bait Units

French Quarter Termite Bait Units

These bait units are installed around the perimeter of buildings receiving treatment for termites. Checked on a regular basis, if termites have, quite literally, taken the wooden bait, a pesticide is added. | Source: Image Courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture's Formosan Termite Image Library. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Alison Laurence, Sarah Waits, and University of New Orleans History Department, “Termites and Historic Preservation,” New Orleans Historical, accessed March 23, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/188.
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